My belief in God has long been based on a personal relationship and not on anyone else's arguments about why I should believe in Him. I've prayed every night for years, and I've recently been managing to pray in the mornings too, after years of failing at that because my brain is a pile of mush when I wake up. God seemed to answer some of my prayers and to guide me at certain points in my life. Atheistic assertions that this was all in my head, that all spiritual feelings and impressions came from one's own mind and not any external source, were as laughable as claiming that all my co-workers are imaginary. But in recent months I've had to evaluate them more seriously after certain events in my life threw me for a loop.
First, something very important to me didn't turn out the way God had led me for a long time to believe it would turn out. It still could, but that would take a miracle and I'm afraid of being delusional if I stake my hopes on one. Of course there have been many times when God didn't give me what I wanted, but this was the first time I felt that he'd deliberately and repeatedly misled me. Second, I stopped believing in the church that taught me to have a personal relationship with him and let him guide my life in the first place. And third, I watched a video of people from several faith traditions bearing emotional testimony that they know their religion is true, including a plural wife in a polygamist sect and members of the Heaven's Gate cult a few days before they killed themselves because their prophet told them to. So it seems like "God" is giving different people mutually contradictory and sometimes terrible answers. And because these things are so personal and subjective by design, I can't say with much confidence that mine are more valid than anyone else's, or why.
I had already made a list of some of my alleged communications from God within the last three years or so - not all of them, but ones that I felt certain couldn't just be products of my own mind. I've found it useful to write these things down when they happen, before memory fades and I second-guess them. Now I decided to evaluate them and become even more certain - or not. I harbor no illusions that this was a scientifically rigorous analysis, but that would be impossible with something so subjective anyway. I did my best. Here are my results:
Items in green are less likely to be products of my own mind. Items in red are more likely - though still not necessarily likely, in my opinion - to be products of my own mind. In case you're colorblind, let me point out that there is significantly more green than red here. Let me also point out that the atheist straw man of all spiritual experiences is "You pray about something and get a warm feeling that confirms what you already thought," but only one of these nineteen experiences (#16, the one all in red) falls into that category. Since this isn't scientifically rigorous, though, I'm not concerned about exact percentages. I will now explain the opaque terminology I used.
Unsolicited (green) - I got something that I didn't ask for when I wasn't praying.
Solicited delayed (green) - I got something in response to prayer, but hours or days later. I don't think it's likely that my subconscious would play such a trick on me. If it would, then there's really no point in me trying to accurately perceive reality at all.
Solicited immediate (red) - I got something as soon as I prayed about it.
Pro-bias (red) - I got something that I wanted or expected to hear.
Anti-bias (green) - I got something that contradicted what I wanted or expected to hear. The importance of this can't be overstated. Atheists always forget or ignore the fact that many people have reported God telling them things that go against their biases. For example, in #3, I was feeling frustrated and impatient that the something very important to me wasn't progressing very fast, when I got an impression that I can only describe as a gentle rebuke for not accepting the Lord's timing. I didn't expect this impression and I certainly didn't ask for it. Now, if something is what I wanted or asked for but goes against everything I know about how my emotions work, I still count it as anti-bias. For example, in #17 I was severely depressed about the something very important to me and I prayed for comfort and I got it. I know damn well that I don't have the power to make myself not depressed just like that. And to be honest, I usually feel little or nothing when I pray for comfort. So I felt like this situation was special.
From someone else (green) - In most cases, this means someone gave me a priesthood blessing and said stuff that ostensibly came from God - solicited (red) if I asked for the blessing, and unsolicited (green) if the guy offered it. I no longer believe in the LDS church's claim to exclusive priesthood authority, but I still see priesthood blessings as one way for God to communicate with people. Of course, the guys who give the blessings are also limited by their own biases and by whatever information I give or don't give them beforehand, but their input still provides a comforting check and balance on my biases. The exception to the priesthood blessing thing is #6, wherein I was thinking long and hard about the something very important to me and what was I supposed to do about it, when a friend texted me "James 1:5" and I was like "How did you know?" and she was like "Know what?" and she said she had been prompted to send it. Of course, I was well aware that this verse existed and of what it said prior to her message, but her being prompted to send it in this context meant something to me. I took it as God trying to boost my confidence in my ability to discern his communications on this subject. Which made me all the more bewildered when it didn't turn out like he led me to believe it would, but that's a whole other subject not suitable for public consumption.
Unknowable (green) - In both of these instances, #11 and #13, I followed a prompting to change my route and crossed paths with someone very important that I didn't know would be there. I almost never bother to change my route once I've decided which way I want to go, so this isn't just confirmation bias highlighting two instances out of several others where nothing happened. (Incidentally, if the person who followed a prompting to send me "James 1:5" were to make her own list following my criteria, that item would be "unknowable" for her.)
This is enough to restore my confidence that a higher power exists and communicates with me, though I no longer feel like I know much else about them, their character, their motives, or how I can trust them. I do feel like God cares very little about what people believe. That's a big shift from the emphasis on objective truth that I was raised with and clung to so hard for so long. But if there's one true religion that God wants everyone to join, he's failed spectacularly and appears to have not even tried. If there's one true religion that I have to join to escape from eternal damnation, then billions of people have already failed and my own chance of success is so low that I may as well not bother and instead contemplate how to make hell as cozy as possible, which I've had a lot of practice doing since 2020. I think God wants me to do the best I can with the circumstances and the advantages and disadvantages that I've been given. I hope that's all he wants, because otherwise I'm screwed.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.